Joy Williams is one of those writers who can reconfigure a handful of familiar words into something breathtaking, totally violating and adjusting a perspective you thought was established and pedestrian inside of you. This particular story isn’t in any of her collections, which is partly why I love and chose it. In it the Russian philosopher and mystic George Gurdjieff haunts Susan Sontag’s childhood home. Williams’ study of Gurdjieff’s point of view, as he tries to embody Sontag and understand her origins and essence, is at once so delicate and so crushing you find yourself swept away, utterly without bearings.
Gurdjieff had made a pilgrimage to the desert, to Tucson, Arizona, where Susan Sontag spent her formative years. G is in love with Susan Sontag. Dead now, sadly, but all the more reason. He’s crazy about her. She hated the desert, but no matter. The desert had her in her formative years. The desert is irreducible and strange and is not merry, it is never merry. Not even the baby roadrunners and javelinas know how to play. It is work, work, work, hopeless living work.
First published in Tin House 62: Winter Reading, 2014. You can watch a fantastic video of Williams reading it here
We first see Jenny as a young girl:
She lies a little but it is not considered serious. Sometimes she forgets where she is. She is lost in a place that is not her childhood.
We move between seeing her with her loving and patient parents, to her adult life in a shadowy apartment with a strange older man. The structure powerfully enacts the lurch and teeter of memory. Child Jenny goes to her parents’ room after a nightmare, there are marigolds on the dresser; in the next paragraph, the man she is with “likes flowers, although he dislikes Jenny’s childishness” – the man puts “flowers between her breasts, between her legs”. A call of another mother to come and play remains unanswered because, in the following paragraph, Jenny is “propelled by sidereal energies. Loving, for her, will not be a free choosing of her destiny. It will be the discovery of the most fateful part of her”.
I found, on returning to ‘The Excursion’ after five years or so, that it’s become more opaque to me, even though I’m still overwhelmed by its innovative structure. Was it always going to turn out like this for Jenny? There is something fated about the situation, that sits uneasily with the image of the young girl, sombre as she is. The contrast isn’t for sentimental effect. Williams seems to give Jenny an autonomy often lacking from stories where a child becomes a mirror of the parents’ anxieties, but this very consistency – the lies, the secret later life – is deeply unnerving.
Published in Taking Care, Vintage Contemporaries, 1985. Also in The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, Knopf, 2015
With some stories you’re smitten from the first sentence, which is just as well when it’s from 99 Stories of God. Each story is less than a page long, some just a couple of paragraphs. I could write out the whole of ‘#36’ and probably still hit my word count. It’s about a house owned by Penny, a house Penny never liked but her tenants adored. They want to buy it but she takes against them. “Penny found them irritating in any number of ways – they were ostentatious, full of self-regard, and cheap. They also did not read.” That I read this after a short-lived stint as a landlord with tenants I also came to loathe might have everything to do with why I love the story so much if it wasn’t also perfectly written. Penny is both a normal person and, in her own way, God. Find the collection; there are 98 other gems as well as this one.
Collected in 99 Stories of God, Tuskar Rock Press, 2017
There is a part of me that would quite like to be Joy Williams. She lives in the middle of nowhere with her large, strange dogs and she drives a battered car. I may have read that in the The Paris Review or I may have imagined it while reading The Visiting Privilege. I came across the book in 2015 whilst on a US tour with my first book, In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre. I was in the bookshop at the University of North Carolina. The staff in the shop were lovely, and I felt welcome to sit down and start reading this book. I was drawn to it because of the cover, with its fuzzy image of a German Shepherd dog. And perhaps I cannot forget this particular story because it also has a dog in it – and it is brutal. Williams’ stories are always shot through with humour though, no matter how unpleasant the tale. For the last three years, I have not been able to get this image out of my head: “David wraps his legs around his father’s chest and pees all over him. Their clothing turns dark as though, together, they’d been shot.” Oh, Joy!
From The Visiting Privilege, Knopf, 2015. Originally published in Taking Care by Joy Williams, Random House, 1972